ALBUM REVIEW: Flyleaf – Between the Stars (2014)

betweenstarsBy Ryan Smith

It’s a hell of a thing, getting over the loss of a band member, and that was exactly the challenge placed before the remaining members of Texas alternative rock band Flyleaf in 2012, when vocalist Lacey Sturm announced her retirement after ten years and three full-length albums. Though we’re not talking about anything quite as tragic as an Ian Curtis or Layne Staley situation here, I can only imagine how it might have felt when Sameer Bhattacharya, Jared Hartmann, Pat Seals, and James Culpepper were given the news.

In tribute to their strong work ethic, it was only shortly after that the band drafted former Vedera vocalist Kristen May to fill the void and, not missing a beat, picked up where they’d left off with a tour supporting New Horizons, Lacey’s last album with the band. Two years since the switch-up, Flyleaf’s passion for what they do has at last resulted in the release of the band’s fourth full-length album, their first such album with Kristen May as lead vocalist.

While Flyleaf has been one of my all-time favourite bands since 2006, my expectations were decidedly low for this album. I loved the last album, New Horizons, but I felt that its great strength was the fact that Lacey Sturm had written and recorded most of her material knowing it was going to be her last. There was, therefore, a great deal of passion in her writing and delivery that overshadowed a lot of the things that I perceived as being the album’s flaws. I thought the music was quite flat and lacking the kind of elaborate ensemble character that made their first two records distinct.

I do think, instrumentally at least, that Between the Stars is New Horizons‘ superior. Through many listens, and getting past what I would generally describe as an initially disappointing vocal presentation, I have really come to appreciate the subtle seasonings that make this album’s musical landscape actually quite impressive. It’s a shame, though, that such a strength is initially hard to hear on the record… for a long-time fan, at least.

The first track (and also the first single from the record), “Set Me On Fire,” is quite frankly a bit of an atrocity. While I feel the band was trying for an “I’m So Sick” kind of vibe with the song’s intro, the verses are a little too close to what I’ve heard in every Evanescence clone. The pre-chorus is at least funkier and more original, but Kristen May’s habit of whipping out that heinously gaudy Fat Albert growl just kills any credibility to me. To date, I’ve only heard said growl used well once, and it was in fact in the May-fronted Flyleaf’s live version of “Broken Wings.” The chorus of “Set Me On Fire” is okay, but there needs to be something else going on with the vocals. They sound quite thin all the way through the record, a shortcoming that I will blame more on producer Don Gilmore than I will on the vocalist herself. More on this in a bit.

The second verse of “Set Me On Fire” introduces a sweet effected guitar piece which is exactly the kind of thing I love to hear from this band, and further lead work is used stunningly throughout the song, which is also great to hear. That being said, I could have done without the ultra-repetitive, and borderline aggravating two-note wailing ‘oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh!’ that vainly  attempts to become a hook.

Flyleaf, L-to-R: Jared Hartmann, Sameer Bhattacharya, Kristen May, Pat Seals, James Culpepper.

Flyleaf, L-to-R: Jared Hartmann, Sameer Bhattacharya, Kristen May, Pat Seals, James Culpepper.

Thankfully, the second track, “Magnetic,” is absolutely fantastic! While it’s more ‘Paramore Lite’ than anything comparable to the Flyleaf of the past, “Magnetic” showcases the instruments well during the verses and sports a memorable and extremely catchy chorus. It’s a really sweet song that is most definitely one of my favourites on the record. With this one, May shows off the power of her voice in a classy and epic way, unlike the gaudy approach taken in the previous track.

“Traitor” is a decent enough tune, resembling previous Flyleaf tunes like “Chasm” and “Call You Out.” Essentially, it’s a more straight-forward alt-rock tune. It does have an Evanescence vibe (especially with the ‘traitor, traitor’ chant at the end) that I try to ignore.

“Platonic” is a really cool little tune that features the entire band 100% ON. Listen to the subtle hooks in the music and the great, almost Metric-like vocal melody in the verse. It gets even better when the tune shifts into a more tumultuous chorus, carried by the steady, driving percussion that I have loved since I first heard the band. Both the lead and rhythm guitars here are soothing and haunting at the same time, pouring a feeling of intense longing into the song.

I said I would talk about Don Gilmore and the vocals on the record, so here goes. The thing is, Kristen May is a bloody great vocalist. In a review of the band’s EP Who We Are that I wrote for our parent publication, I essentially gave her a standing ovation. She was definitely the highlight of that mostly live record. While I don’t think her voice carries half the thrilling character that Lacey’s had, her pitch and control are unparalleled in this kind of music, allowing for a character of her own to shine through. What a pity, then, that on this new disc we don’t really hear any of the pitchy stuff that made Who We Are exciting.

On the production side of things, Between the Stars is the first full-length album of that band’s that was not produced by the brilliant Howard Benson. I know, from listening to the EPs that were not produced by Benson, that the man had a great deal of involvement in making sure Lacey’s vocals were layered and effected to perfection. He even produced the bulk of guest vocal appearances she made with other artists such as Third Day. While Lacey’s natural voice had a lot to do with Flyleaf’s vocal sound, thick, layered, and often times harmonised vocals were a lot to do with it as well. I’m not against Gilmore, I loved his work with Linkin Park and Revis, but I don’t perhaps think he was the best choice here. Maybe on the next album, but not this first crucial step beyond New Horizons. It might have made the change from Lacey to Kristen a little more seamless had Benson produced this record.

The layering I’m talking about does happen, if lightly, a few times on the record. In “Platonic” we hear it on the line ‘about two friends who made each other angry’ and during the second chorus, kind of on the line ‘we’ll see where the night ends.’ Moving on with “Platonic,” a tumultuous, and really cool guitar riff leads us into a bridge which prominently features synth, of all things! I have to say how awesome it is to hear this kind of tinkering going on within the established sound. We haven’t really heard anything like that before in Flyleaf, and it really friggin works!

Overall, I like “Platonic,” but I do feel that the lyrics seem a little silly. I’m not attacking the fact that the song is about the dreaded ‘friendzone.’ I think that said zone is a more than viable subject for a song. So many of us have been there, I myself am in fact Captain Friendzone. I’m just used to the more powerful, edgy, wise, and symbolic lyrics that Lacey used to generate as if hurling wisdom from the pulpit. The lyrics attempt an edge with ‘platonic jagged knives,’ but for the most part the story being told seems almost juvenile, like a teenage girl’s melodrama. The music and lyricless vocals that start the song build up this incredible mood that just seems to be all for nothing when the lyrics fail to match.

“Head Underwater” is a powerful tune, with an impassioned delivered from May. I once again dig everyone’s performance on this tune, the piano and the whole bit. While it doesn’t perhaps carry off the same darkness as a lot of the band’s early work, tunes like “Head Underwater” probably more accurately represent the states of mind of the band members at this point in their lives. There should certainly be no shame in mellowing out a bit at this point.

Everyone seems pretty happy this time round and there’s no shame in that!

And then there’s “Sober Serenade.” Beyond a shadow of a doubt I consider this tune to be the best thing on Between the Stars. “Serenade” is the closest thing to the classic Flyleaf sound that I feel they come to on this one. The cascading musical textures in the opening are a nice touch, the rhythm section is tight and entertaining, and the lyrics and melodies are incredible. The vocal hook before and during the chorus is the kind of subtle brilliance that Lacey used to throw in toward the end of a song (see “Again.”) The song is extremely catchy and demands as much repeated listening as many of my favourite songs from throughout the band’s career. The depth and execution of “Sober Serenade” effectively earns this line-up a spot next to the original.

“Thread” is pretty wonderful, as well. My opinion on this track mirrors the one on “Head Underwater.” If Flyleaf is to have a ‘new sound,’ they could do a lot worse than what is presented here. This tune features great melodies and instrumental hooks, such as the guitar that pops in and out of lines of the chorus. Even May’s wailing at the 1:50 mark is produced properly here into something quite fitting overtop spectacularly spastic guitar effect.

“Marionette” shows off Seals’ distinct bass playing, the ever fantastic guitars, and just how pretty Kristen’s voice is when lowered and layered. While still not layered enough for my liking, the chorus vocals are still quite stirring and powerful. Once again, however, I find the lyrics to be an alt-rock cliché at this point. What would alt-rockers do if they weren’t allowed to used the word ‘you’ in an accusatory manner?! Oh well, still far better than the beer-swilling, party, and private parts nonsense we seem to get from the rest of the rock world.

With more neat guitar textures, “Well of Lies” lives up to its name by promising something quite interesting, when what is delivered is actually a little unremarkable, aside from the pretty and chipper pre-chorus.

“City Kids,” like “Sober Serenade” before it, brings a bit of a nostalgic tear to my eye. The song is musically and lyrically very similar to the Flyleaf classic “So I Thought.” There is genuine feeling to the tune and the two tremendously gifted guitarists play off each other perfectly. Kristen May’s soft and pretty tremolo gives way to a very powerful and moving delivery that includes some fiery screaming that is a nice little nod to those of us who were amazed that tiny little Lacey Mosely could scream like a bloody nightmare!

The final two songs are tremendous standouts for me. The first is another pretty song, care of May’s awesome voice, called “Blue Roses.” This stunning tune would feel right at home on the latter half of Memento Mori. The music is more subdued and straight-forward, allowing May’s elegant delivery to take the spotlight. The final tune, “Home,” is just wonderful. Like “Arise” and “Broken Wings,” this song is the kind of touching uplift we’ve come to expect at the end of Flyleaf records. Once again, May’s impassioned delivery and the band’s ever subtle complexity win the day and end Between the Stars in the best possible way.

I’ve already dedicated more words to this record than I normally like to for any one record, but as I’m a huge fan, I wanted to make sure I did this right. There are some things about Between the Stars that really irk me… but this is Flyleaf, for heaven’s sake! True, a lot of the tunes aren’t nearly as immediate as older tunes in the band’s catalogue, but there are still some real gems to be found. Sure, the lyrics aren’t as wise and intellectually stimulating as those on New Horizons, but the instrumental experimentation is definitely twice what it was on that same album. Even if Between the Stars doesn’t deliver as the band’s next big step up, it captures the band as they are now and finds the band no less talented and driven than they were on previous releases. As said, it’s very difficult to carry on after a good chunk of your creative force has moved on, so it’s exceptional to catch the band in the midst of changing it up a bit — forging ahead in a bold attempt to develop a sound that is familiar enough to fans but different enough to allow the new configuration to shine. I assure you that any and all disappointment stems from my love for these musicians, and I would urge Flyleaf fans to purchase Between the Stars and give it many patient listens. I think that on the next record we will find the new line-up much better situated and, based on the positive examples I have found on Between the Stars, this excites me greatly.

RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.